THE election of a black man - Ronald Brown - to head the Democratic National Committee is another welcome first in the breaking down of barriers to full political participation in the United States. It's a natural next step following the highly respectable performance of Jesse Jackson in last year's presidential campaign, a performance that saw large numbers of whites as well as blacks voting for the Rev. Mr. Jackson.
There is considerable concern among Democratic regulars that Mr. Brown's ties to the liberal wing of the party - Jackson, labor unions, and especially Sen. Edward Kennedy - will undercut Democrats' efforts to rebuild an organization that has lost hold of its traditional base, particularly in the South.
That probably masks at least some latent racism, but there is cause for concern among Democrats. The party hasn't won a majority of the Southern white vote in a presidential election since 1964. Even Jimmy Carter couldn't do it. Brown's job will be to act as conciliator among his fractious party's elements while maintaining Democrats' distinct character and goals, its attractiveness to minorities and the working middle class.
Lee Atwater, Brown's peppery Republican counterpart, has no intention of conceding the black vote to his rival. And George and Barbara Bush's patrician support of minority groups and individuals over many years gives the GOP much more of a chance here than Ronald Reagan ever did.
But Ron Brown's elevation to party leadership also symbolizes something else about US political parties these days. More and more in the age of television and slick media campaigns, elections are won by individuals and not by parties. The predicted party realignment in fact has become ``dealignment,'' leaving the party apparatus to activists like Brown and Mr. Atwater.
Also, Democrats' grip on Congress and state legislatures (which draw congressional district boundaries - keep your eye on 1990) not only proves that Ronald Reagan's coattails were short indeed. It also shows that most Americans are happy to have the legislative and executive branches free from one-party domination. The ship of state tracks steadier - though the waters may roil more - with an oar on each side.
So Brown's success should not be measured wholly on whether Democrats finally reclaim the White House, at least not in 1992. That will depend more on how well the Bush team performs than on the Democratic standard-bearer.